“If you haven’t travelled, you really need to get moving,” said Deana Murphy, vice-president, retail sales at Sunwing Travel Group, addressing nearly 400 travel advisors at Travel Professionals International’s (TPI) fall conference, “Emerge,” which kicked off on Wednesday (Oct. 20).
TPI’s two-day virtual event, which runs until Oct. 21, features a lineup of informative sessions and group discussions – and Murphy, appearing on a panel yesterday about travel trends, was direct in sharing her advice to travel advisors who are trying to “emerge” from the COVID-19 crisis.
“You need to book yourself a vacation. You need to travel now,” said Murphy. “Who wants to book with a travel advisor who isn’t travelling or who hasn’t travelled in the last couple of years?”
Murphy acknowledged that some travel advisors may not be ready to pack their bags just yet.
But the Sunwing VP stressed that she has seen, firsthand, how travelling has helped the trade re-engage with their business, and clients, during the pandemic.
“It builds their confidence,” she said. “It gets them excited and engaged on social media.”
Social media is “not costing anybody anything,” she added.
“You need to travel. You need to post. You need to let your whole clientele know that they can to,” Murphy said.
Reconnect, rebuild, reignite, revamp
TPI’s “Emerge” conference, with more than 350 advisors and 45 supplier partners in attendance, comes at a crucial time for Canada’s travel industry, which is finally starting to see some signs of a COVID-19 recovery.
After 18 months of uncertainty, air routes are being restored, cruise ships are back at sea, global border restrictions are easing, demand for travel is up and vaccines are proving to be effective.
While challenges remain, such as Canada’s travel advisories and costly testing measures, TPI says that now is the time for travel advisors to emerge from the COVID-19 crisis, evolve with new strategies and grow their business with fresh enthusiasm.
“As a TPI family, and as an industry, we are ready to Emerge stronger and better than ever,” said Zeina Gedeon, CEO and president at TPI. “Now is the time for our advisors to reconnect, rebuild, reignite and revamp their business, work with their customers and our supplier partner so we emerge from the last 18 months and pivot into and much more powerful and resilient network.”
In a company update on Wednesday, Gedeon shared evidence that the recovery is well underway, noting how TPI’s sales have increased more than 29 per cent over the last three months.
The boosts vary by region: Atlantic Canada is showing the sharpest spike (84%), followed by Western Canada (38%) and then Ontario (8%).
Speciality tours are “higher than we’ve ever seen,” Gedeon said, and cruise bookings have also gone up in recent months.
The “biggest opportunity” agents have for reviving their business, Gedeon said, is to get customers to use their future travel credits.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” Gedeon said. “Call your customers. They have the money sitting there. That’s how you get back into the groove of things.”
Luxury is booming
Beth Butzlaff, vice-president of global partner relations at Virtuoso, appearing on the same panel as Murphy, noted how “none of us are strangers to disruption” in the travel industry.
“But one thing that is always constant after every disruption is that the high-net-worth client emerges first,” she said. “We’re really seeing that client come out strong.”
Referencing strong sales within the luxury sector for 2022 and 2023, Butzlaff noted how luxury cruise lines, for instance, are going further with longer trips.
“Regent just announced their 2024 world cruise. They sold out in three hours, which is phenomenal, but when you consider that they’re about $150,000 per person, that’s remarkable.”
“That’s the best day they had in sales. Ever.”
The mixing of business and leisure is another trend Butzlaff is seeing, and, as well, more clients have been asking about sustainability, she said.
“Focus on what is moving”
At Sunwing, Murphy, too, is seeing customers embrace longer stays and last-minute bookings, she said, are really taking off.
“75 per cent of bookings we made last week are for Canadians travelling within the next 12 weeks,” Murphy said. “Half of that is within next six weeks.”
While the industry may have a “love-hate relationship” with last-minute travel, this trend has translated into commissions being paid immediately, Murphy said, because full payment is due upon booking.
Murphy shared another piece of direct advice with the audience: “We need to sell what’s selling,” she said.
For instance, with Cancun and Punta Cana already reaching pre-pandemic capacity, agents need to “focus on what is moving,” she said.
“Many are ready to travel,” Murphy said. “They’re packed and ready to go.”
“The more flights we fill now, the more flights we will see coming back quicker.”
“The best time to fish is during a storm”
Adding to yesterday’s trend talk, Maureen Barnes-Smith, vice-president, sales and marketing at Unique Vacations Inc., the marketing arm of Sandals and Beaches Resorts, referenced a line once often used by Sandals’ late founder and chairman Gordon “Butch” Stewart: “The best time to fish is during a storm.”
During the pandemic, “One of things we learned is that you have to be flexible and learn how to adapt so quickly,” Barnes-Smith said.
The key thing for agents, now, she said, is visibility.
“To be seen, is to be sold,” Barnes-Smith said, referring to a tagline used by one of her BDMs. “Agents and advisors have to be visible.”
In the face of ever-changing entry protocols and border restrictions, “clients need you now more than ever before,” she told attendees.
“Your expertise is 100 per cent required. It’s necessary.”
Beyond knowing a product through and through, “you have to get on a plane,” Barnes-Smith added.
“You have to get in destination, you have to show your clients that it’s safe, that the protocols are working,” she said. “That confidence level has to be built up.”
“It is not too late to emerge”
In addition to hosting a virtual trade show, yesterday's kick-off also included an insurance sales panel on "protecting your client's investments."
As of yesterday, there were 72 days left in 2021, which the day's keynote speaker Marsha-Ann Donaldson-Brown, director of weddings and romance at Sandals Resorts International, said is enough time for TPI advisors to “activate” their minds, greatness and business plans.
“It is not too late to emerge,” she told attendees. “You’d be amazed to know what we can achieve in 72 days.”
“We cannot linger about what has not happened, but instead, we need to focus on what we can make happen.”
With that, Donaldson-Brown encourages attendees to take action, embrace change, and “trigger that next level of awesomeness that’s already in you.”
Reaching out to clients, updating old business plans, tapping into communities and being enthusiastic about new methods are all part of the recovery, she said.
Choosing a method “that works for you,” she said, is key.
“Everything begins and ends with your mindset.”
TPI’s Emerge conference runs until Oct. 21. Stay tuned for more.